Day Thirty: Friday November 30th, Tradition vs. Trend: A New Beginning of Sorts
Our final Yakitori Top Chef, Francisco Alejandri, arrived to test his chicken and spicy almond mole recipe. After spending some time in the kitchen, he decided that chicken would not do, that he needed a few more days to think through the recipe with pork and make sure that everything was perfect. He would be back on Sunday to try again, he said, which still works for us, since we will not be launching the Yakitori Top Chef menu until Tuesday. I also know it will be worth the wait. Anyone who has tasted Francisco’s deeply soulful Mexican food at Agave Y Aguacate knows that there is something other than superior technique going on in his dishes. The finished flavours come from a place that few professionally-trained chefs ever tap into. I’ve never tapped into it as an amateur ”chef” and can never hope to in my lifetime. Language is always inadequate in these situations, but there are ghost-ingredients you taste that is not unlike the ghost-notes you hear in Glenn Gould’s later Goldberg Variations. Beyond what is tasted (or heard), an ineffable experience is felt in each of Francisco’s creations. In great food movies like Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman and Like Water For Chocolate, it expresses itself as some kind of love. Francisco’s presence in my kitchen and his demands on ”rightness” reminded me of why I, often against my own best interests, stayed in this business for as long as I have: my grandmother.
My grandmother had eight daughters; my mother is the eldest. For the first five years of my life, I was raised on a farm just outside of Seoul, in my grandmother’s kitchen, surrounded by women who argued about everything from the quality of ingredients chosen for a dish, to the flavours they wanted to achieve (but others felt they didn’t), to the number of side dishes required for any particular occasion. It was from my grandmother, the proud Matriarch at the center of everything on the farm, that my mother and her sisters learned that great cooking was never merely about performing a dutiful act- a means, for instance, to feed the men coming off the rice fields. Cooking was about the daily ritual of celebrating nature’s bounty; about community and communion; about love. I was too young back then to understand this, of course, except intuitively, which may explain why now I can taste it when love is in the food that is being offered.
Two weeks before my grandmother passed away seven years ago, I sat by her hospital bed and we had what would be our last meaningful conversation. I had just recently opened up my first restaurant and she questioned me about my choice: it was a modern Japanese sushi restaurant. In my faltering Korean, I tried to explain the demands of the market to her, tried to explain why our city was not yet ready for a ”modern” Korean restaurant. She paused for a long time and told me that Korean food was something to be proud of, that I should shout about it from the rooftops, that it was a cuisine worthy of beugeen-der (“white people”). Just watch, you will see how much they will love it, she said. I promised her I would open one up some day, but I said it only to appease her mind. Clearly I was not ready then and I’m not sure I will ever be ready. More importantly, I think she may have mistook her grandson for a real ambassador of her native cuisine.
Today, Francisco’s deep respect for the rich heritage that he comes from, the inspiring legacy of his own mother who taught him how to cook, and the fanfare around his local creations had given me pause. In the restaurants (Yakitori Bar and Seoul Food Co.) I will be opening later today, the tension between tradition and trend will be felt in every dish. Between the flavour-of-the-month that the hipster is tweeting about and the ”ethnically authentic” approach that has become a boring cliche for many, a marriage, often uneasy, can be arranged between a successful business and a soulful experience. Trying to strike this right balance is not easy; in fact, it is very very difficult. I know this because my own 25+ years in the restaurant industry is littered with casualties.
But I can only do my best to bridge that yawning gap between the two terroirs that have shaped my own experience with food & beverage and the business of selling it. The relationship between tradition and trend can succeed, but only when, like all great marriages, there is mutual respect for differences and a shared vision of what is possible. In the coming weeks, possibly months, judgement will be made by the paying diner about whether or not I have been an adequate marriage counsellor.
There were some nay-sayers who told me that I couldn’t open a restaurant in thirty days and they were right if by it they meant it will not be perfect. My only recourse was to tell them that I have never been to a perfect restaurant so I may be forgiven for not knowing how to open one myself. But perhaps ignorance is no excuse. This present journey whose destination is the opening of the restaurants today has been rich with content, invested with meaning, even if it was astonishing in its velocity. We’re going to open- not perfectly, be sure- and, with the help of my team, my chefs, my friends, my family, my grandmother’s indomitable pride, we will do well.
Just watch us…